by Francine Ringold
In 1740 a book was published entitled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. Some say it was the first novel. However, it purported to be the true story of a woman named, of course, Pamela, and it was written in the first person in the form of letters from said Pamela to her father telling the sad tale of her life in the home of Mr. B (initials only are provided in the novel), where she worked as a servant and was pursued by B, who, failing to seduce her, marries her. In truth, Pamela was written by Samuel Richardson—neither a woman nor a servant to anyone.
Pamela was a sensation. Apparently this was not just because the book had, especially for the time it was written, raunchy details. For example, Pamela’s room is invaded several times by B. One incident finds B hiding in a closet from which he pops out and is dutifully fought off. It is hilarious—even if we may be less than politically correct to laugh at such goings on! But more importantly, the novel’s success seems to have been due to the claim that it was a “true” story, Pamela’s story, hence a memoir—not the whole story of Pamela’s life but a vibrant, thematically integrated portion of her life.
Now memoirs flood the shelves of the few standing bookstores remaining and the lists of Amazon. We assume that these memoirs are “true” stories even though many are written by ghostwriters or even acknowledged as co-written by another person. And how we still love to read the “truth,” even in this age when there is so much confusion over what is true and what false, even when, ironically, the most truthful, straight, factual of our media sources are accused of being “false news.”
I don’t know why this is. I am no psychologist or sociologist or data collector but merely an observer. Surely anyone can notice the number of memoirs being published, especially by celebrities, and purchased left and right. Perhaps it is our thirst for gossip.
Nevertheless, you should write your memoir. You are up to the task and deserve the fun you will have in the process. Ironically, you will even enjoy the tears released. Remember, everyone has a story to tell and your story is as gripping as the next guy’s when you dig deep. You should write a memoir or an autobiography not because it will be published or will sell widely but because, quite simply, it is a wonderful way of gathering together your thoughts, your memories—your life—your truths.
I taught four classes in memoir writing and have written my own: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Writing Yours. I must confess it is more of an autobiography than a memoir. I wrote it at the age of 80 and I thought I had better get in more than a portion of my life—which, as are many long lives, is various, complicated, diverse, tumultuous and so forth.
But getting back toyou! You should write your story because writing is fun, or it can be fun if you approach it as yet another form of play and follow the rules of the game, which involve, as one of its primary rules, writing with your whole body and mind. (In Homo Ludens,Johan Huizinga, Dutch philosopher, shows how all play is serious and essential to human culture.)
You should write your memoir because in the process you discover what you want to say and need to say. You might even discover the truth!
But what is that? What is “truth”? It seems that the truth is something that must be corroborated by another person or persons, by facts, by data. But one person’s truth may vary from another’s, depending upon one’s angle of vision, from which direction one views the incident or person. Ask anyone who has filed an accident report.
In the first draft of your memoir, if you are lucky, you discover your theme, the distinct and unifying idea. In the second or third or fourth draft, writing in substantial parts, not necessarily chronologically, rearranging, editing, and so forth—you discover your truth. Don’t shy away from it but do acknowledge that there could be another point of view. That acknowledgement will make the reader trust you and believe that you are trying to find the fundamental, underlying premise of your life.
And yet, and yet, we do know what truth is, don’t we? The sun rises and sets each day—a truth we can check. Truth is that mountain in the distance, just beyond the edge of the water. Truth is the strange tree whose bark peels in layers, whose trunk bends and twists with the wind to form a labyrinthine path. We see it, we touch it, we are rooted with it. Truth is the baby that emerges from your womb as you watch it in the carefully placed mirror and know, not just because of the pain and the pregnancy, that it is yours. Truth is something you can see with your eyes, walk with your feet, feel with your body and mind, collect with supporting data. Truth has evidence, facts to support it. As Senator Daniel Moynihan said: “You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.”
But what if the mountain is obscured by a thick fog? Is it still there, as Descartes might ask? Will it still define boundaries when the fog lifts? And the tree, when it is cut down and carted off—is it still a tree or just a hunk of wood? Even that baby you watched being born—is it truly yours? Did someone slip another infant into the hands of the obstetrician between the last push when you were too engaged to see clearly and the moment of revelation? There are always truths and there are always doubts. Yet we pursue the comfort and security of learning what seems to be true, always there, always grounding. And we search to corroborate what is truly ours. Our intentions prompt us to secure information, to check details, to acknowledge when we are off base, to let our active mind, as well as the old salt of the hair standing on end or a shiver down the spine, affirm that we have come just as close as possible to the truth.
Your reward is not so much the end product—your memoir—but the experience in trying to get to the truth, the labor of love that always involves digging and unearthing and corroborating and letting the facts and the sensations of your body open to discovery.
Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms. Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.